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Military spending puts spotlight 
on O'Connor 

[PoliticsWatch posted 5:15 p.m. June 27, 2006]

OTTAWA  — This week is defence week for the federal government. 

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor is expected to make a major military spending announcement every day for this week at various military installations across the country.

When the week is over, the federal government is expected to announce $15 billion in spending on ships, helicopters, trucks and airlift. 

O'Connor's tour began on Monday with a stop in Halifax where he announced plans to purchase three new joint support ships for $2.1 billion. 

However, what is supposed to be a good news week for the government, as the defence minister crosses the country and tells the troops first hand about the new purchases will benefit them, got off to a rocky start. 

The first question O'Connor faced from a reporter after making the announcement in Halifax was about his former career as a defence industry lobbyist. 

Before entering government O'Connor spent nearly eight years as a registered lobbyist at the firm Hill and Knowlton. The lobbyist registry shows that during his time as a lobbyist O'Connor had a list of clients that included a who's who of the global defence industry. 

The minister was asked Monday if he had "ever received any money or done any work with any of the companies involved in the four consortiums bidding for this contract."
O'Connor said he "helped" General Dynamics on an artillery project "years ago."

When asked if he had disclosed this, the minister became visibly angry. 

"I have disclosed everything. If you want to keep chasing this I can," he said. 

"I have disclosed everything. I own no shares in any company. I get no renumeration from any company. I have no connections with any company. I have been through the ethics counsellor. I have no recusals. There is nothing there at all.

"I know the opposition continues to try to chase this, but there's nothing there."

Indeed, the opposition has chased this, with little traction. 

Since the new Parliament opened in April, the Liberals have asked 19 questions about O'Connor's past lobbying. 

Recently, O'Connor drew weary of the repeated questions from Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh and responded by saying, "Mr. Speaker, the Hon. member is locked in Groundhog Day. The member keeps asking the same question and he gets the same answer. The same answer is, I have followed the rules in the past, I will follow the rules now and I will follow the rules in the future."

The Liberals have increased their attacks on O'Connor within the last week after Radio Canada broke the news of the $15 billion in new defence spending. 
Dosanjh and Liberal MP Denis Coderre held a press conference where they listed the five purchases and the links to O'Connor's lobbying days. 

According to the Liberals, for the $2.1 billion Joint Support Ships project announced Monday, three of the firms involved were once clients of O'Connor's -- BAE Systems, Raytheon Canada and General Dynamics.

The $1.1 billion for the Medium Logistic Trucks involves Stewart-Stevenson, a firm O'Connor was once registered to lobby for. 

Another procurement expected to be announced this week is for tactical airlift. O'Connor once lobbied for Airbus, which is now known as EADS and is a potential bidder. 

Last November, the Liberal government announced plans to go ahead with procurement on the tactical airlift, but many believed the time of delivery specifications for the procurement would have shut out EADS. 

Boeing has C-17s in production whereas EADS's A400Ms are not yet being made but will be in production in late 2008 or 2009. 

Then defence minister Bill Graham at the time denied any firm was being shut out 

"We need an aircraft that can do certain things and (Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier) defined them and they will be defined in the performance requirements and we need it by a certain time, not there, but within a certain time limit," Graham said. 

If EADS gets back into the bidding under the new procurement it will certainly raise eyebrows in Ottawa. 

After Tuesday's announcement, the Liberals renewed their attacks on O'Connor and called for him to recuse himself from the process or resign as defence minister. 

"Nearly all of these purchases will either be awarded to, or bid on by, companies that the minister was once paid to represent, making the appearance of many potential conflicts quite clear," Coderre said in a statement. 

Coderre added that O'Connor's continued involvement could create delays and lawsuits against the government from losing bidders. 

Losing companies could challenge the government's decision to pick a winner before the Canadian International Trade Tribunal. While that is a possibility it is one that is unlikely to be successful. 

The House of Commons recently passed the Federal Accountability Act, which imposes restrictions on the lobbying industry at the federal level. 

The Act includes a five-year ban on lobbying for former cabinet ministers, ministerial staff and senior public servants, effectively preventing politicians from becoming lobbyists. 

But there is nothing in the Act or existing rules that would prevent a lobbyist from becoming a politician. 

Duff Conacher of the the public interest group Democracy Watch says that while O'Connor is not breaking any rules, the prime minister broke the "spirit" of the code of conduct for public office holders in picking O'Connor as defence minister. 

He specifically cites one of the principles of the code that says public office holders should uphold the highest ethical standard so that public confidence and trust in the integrity, objectivity and impartiality in government are conserved and enhanced.

"He was seven years a lobbyist," said Conacher. " That's a long time, a lot of relations you build and when he was appointed he was less than two years removed from that."

Conacher also blames Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro for not having O'Connor recuse himself on some files and said this kind of thing would not happen if the ethics rules in Ottawa were vigorously enforced.

"For a government that has spoken so much about integrity and accountability and the connection between the lobbying industry and ministers and lobbyists and ministers, having him as minister is not consistent with the conservatives' message," Conacher added.

Despite all the conflict of interest allegations being levelled at the minister from the opposition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remained fully supportive of O'Connor, who is also a former Brigadier General.

"The fact of the matter is the minister has experience," Harper told CBC Newsworld last week when asked about O'Connor and the opposition attacks. 

"He has the full support of National Defence in what he's doing. The full support of the cabinet. And I think ultimately the process he will be announcing is one that's transparent and open, will deliver value for the taxpayers, will deliver military needs promptly and will also give the military what they actually need."

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